Are religious people delusional?

…No.  My first thought when I heard this being said by Richard Carrier a couple of years ago was that it didn’t seem to fit the common usage of the word that I was familiar with (i.e. the colloquial usage of the word “delusional” didn’t seem to fit the vast majority of religious people).

Now Wikipedia is certainly not the source of all things true, but it’s a good start and seems to confirm my thoughts on this.  Here is what I get when looking up “delusional” on wikipedia:

delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.[1] As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulationdogmaillusion, or other effects of perception.

The second sentence says it is distinct from a belief based on dogma, and this is how I have always kind of thought of the word delusional.  I don’t think this is about giving religious people a “break” or being soft in describing them.  I actually think the term is simply not appropriate because for me it conjures up thoughts of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  Now I don’t want to make this about “my definition is better than yours, nah nah na nah nah”, so I can give some leeway as I usually do when it comes to semantics, but it seems reasonable to suggest that at best it is unclear that the term is appropriate.

What seems even stranger is that the people that want to use the word to describe believers are the very people that want to convince believers that atheism is a better worldview (which is not the point of my blog by the way – and anyone who has read it thoroughly I believe would agree).  I am sure there have been people who have heard this and then gone “oh yeah, you know what, I am delusional – thanks for clearing that up”.  But I’m wondering if insulting people by calling them something that usually conjures up “looney bin” is the right approach for atheists who desire to persuade.

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16 thoughts on “Are religious people delusional?

  1. Yes, some of them are delusional.

    I would not apply that term to all religious people. However, some of the YECs that I have debated really are delusional. The belief that Obama is a Kenyan born muslim, working to subvert the USA toward Islam, sure seems to border on being delusional. Yet more than a few fundamentalist Christians express that view.

  2. That’s a good addition Neil, and it is partially why I said “vast majority of religious people” instead of saying “all religious people” in the first paragraph my post. I did have extreme fundamentalists in mind, and I would agree the conspiracy theory you mention would fairly be described as borderline delusional.

  3. To clarify a little, I’ll add that I am not suggesting that all YECs are delusional. But perhaps YECs who debate scientists are more likely to be delusional than the typical YEC. And, for the benefit of casual readers, YEC = “Young Earth Creationist”.

  4. I’ve blogged about this topic to howie…
    http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-christian-delusion/
    http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/content-and-deluded/

    After watching Richard Carrier’s you tube vid. The christian delusion I cna’t but help to think and consider that believing in God is a delusional act. A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. In Psychiatry it is a belief held in the face of evidence to the contrary, that is resistant to all reason.I just can’t help to describe it as a psychiatriac delusion. Because it fits the description. I try not use that word too much cause it is offense…but its the reality of belief when it comes to religion.

    As Sam Harris puts it, “While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.“

    (I also like to describe the church as the Cult.)

  5. Hi Marcus. I can’t get myself to agree with that. I think that you may have quoted only part of the definition of the word. Again I’m more than willing to accept that Wikipedia is wrong on this, but the second sentence I quoted above rules out several things from the definition of delusional and I believe those distinctions are there for a reason. Even without the Wikipedia definition, again I think the word is simply mis-applied because it brings much more meaning along with it than simply “having a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary”.

  6. Great post! I think ill try tackle this issue on my own blog a little later.

    Psychology is not a hard and fast thing, it varies from society to society. One element of a delusion according to many in the field is that it is also outside what one ought to expect from an individual in that particular society. If you have an uncontacted tribe in the amazon who thinks an airplane is a metal God, that obviously isn’t a delusion in the sense of the word. If someone in London thinks that though, it just might be.

    Believing in a God or being a Christian, Jew or Muslim is not on the extreme fringes of a society like believing a chunk of metal is a deity. That alone really disqualifies it from being a delusion.

    Another important point is that they are easily disproved and that the person refuses to budge, even given extremely strong evidence against their delusional belief. In the film a beautiful mind, about the renown mathematician josh nash, who suffered from hallucinations of people being next to him, the doctor in the film took a polaroid of him sitting with his “companions”. Obviously, if they weren’t real, they’re not in the polaroid. if this doesn’t convince someone or they think its some elaborate photo manipulation, they might be delusion. The proof from God (even the very nature of the argument) is far from easily conclusive.

  7. Thanks Pascal’s Bookie. Your description here is also how I see the use of the word delusional. And your last sentence is spot on – in the case of a lot of religious believers (not all of course) what they believe is not the kind of stuff that lends easily to the kind of proof or disproof that is used in determining if one is delusional.

  8. 😀 That made me laugh Noel – I like it! But I guess kind of like when kids at school are all “good” then the word good no longer has a useful meaning. Either way the word delusional still conjures up looney bin for me when I hear it and I think that is how it comes across to a lot of people.

  9. I think that’s a really good point John. There are definitely some religious people who talk in a way that it seems like they may actually have a bit of a psychological problem. I’ve met some that are to that extreme but not too many. I just don’t see how some religious people who reason through belief like Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne are delusional. I don’t even think they are lazy. I think some of their reasons don’t make sense for me, but delusional doesn’t fit quite right. But like I said I’m not sure I want to get into a semantic debate. I think your point is definitely well taken. And yes there are tons of religious believers who are lazy about thinking about their belief. Perhaps some people who don’t believe might be also. From your well thought thru blog it is clear you are not one of these.

  10. Hehehe… Leaving Catholicism was frightfully easy. Religion in Australia is passive. Completely different ball game in the US. In fact, until on 8 or so years ago i seriously didn’t know people actually believed in Genesis. When i first heard i thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. Coming to Brazil, though, put some fire under me to speak out against religion. It does a great deal of damage here, and people are just too gullible.

    I’m a little in the dark, Howie. Are you an atheist?

  11. Implicit (or negative) atheist describes me well. I discuss a little bit about what labels fit me here and here

    I’m not a naturalist although I do believe that objective methods like the scientific method are the best ways that humans have found for finding out what’s really true.

    Are you just curious, or is there a reason you are asking?

  12. Just curious. I was looking through a few of your posts but couldn’t actually pin you own to this or that. Not that it really matters. I like the definition of implicit atheist; sort of a mild deist with a headache 🙂

  13. I’m not a deist, but the headache part definitely fits – thinking about this stuff definitely gives me a headache! ;-D

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